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Conference Final

Lightning short on answers entering Game 3 against Capitals

Trailing Eastern Conference Final 2-0 'hard to explain,' coach says

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Jon Cooper didn't sense depression in the dressing room after the Tampa Bay Lightning lost Game 2 to the Washington Capitals on Sunday, a loss that has them down 2-0 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final with Game 3 at Capital One Arena on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

The Lightning coach didn't feel a team that was giving up. Instead, he felt anger in the room. He felt resolve.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

That's all well and good. Anger is better than resignation. It is more useful than despair.

But more useful than both are answers, which were in short supply for the Lightning on Monday, 12 hours after they had cleared out of Amalie Arena, having lost two games at home to the surging Capitals and about to head into enemy territory two losses away from their season being over.

It is a startling turn of events, especially for those who watched the Lightning defeat the New Jersey Devils and the Boston Bruins in the first and second rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning both series in five games. 

"It's hard to explain," Cooper said Monday. "If you could, maybe we wouldn't be down 0-2."

Asked if this felt like the same team, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said, "No, obviously not."

The things they were doing against the Devils and Bruins aren't what they're doing against the Capitals. The crispness of passes, the quickness on the puck, the lack of turnovers. It's vanished for the Lightning, partially because of the opponent, but perhaps more because the Lightning have themselves suddenly become disjointed. 

"We're probably not following our structure the way we have in the previous two series," Cooper said. "That's one thing. The second thing you hit on is execution. We get chances to make plays and our team has the ability to make plays and we're not.

"It's either pucks in the skates or it's too far ahead or you're putting it somewhere where they can't handle it. It's just unlike us. In saying that, in an 82-game season I could probably count 15 games where that happens. It happens. Nobody plays the perfect game. Nobody goes 82-0. Nobody goes 16-0 in the playoffs. It's just heightened when you're at this time of the year and this time."

It's discouraging. It's the worst time of the season to lose that edge, execution and ability to do all the things that got them to this point. Especially so quickly. 

The Lightning are struggling to stop the Capitals, giving them too many turnovers and clear shots at goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They're seeing the Capitals clog their defensive zone, use their speed, while the Lightning aren't using their own. They also are struggling to get chances of their own, especially in Game 1 when Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made 19 saves and barely was tested.

They've scored four goals in two games, three on the power play, which is good news for the man-advantage statistics but bad news for a team that also needs to produce at even strength.
 
"We've obviously got to be more consistent over 60 minutes," Hedman said. "We're in a hole, but one team that can come out of it is us."

Hedman believes the Lightning can bounce back and reassert themselves, return to the play that got them to this point. He believes in the teammates and the team that had113 points in the regular season, most in the Eastern Conference. 

But he, like the rest of the team, doesn't exactly have answers. 

It has happened suddenly and, suddenly, the Lightning find themselves in a position where adjustments need to be made, perhaps changes. They might not have been panicking after Game 2, but there is a sense of concern, a sense that things have gone awry without a real explanation. 

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm2: Jon Cooper on lack of execution in loss

"It's quick," Cooper said. "It goes fast. Within 48 hours a series is two games over and we're on the wrong side of that. Can you judge how a team's played in the playoffs over the last 48 hours or over the last month? Over the last month we've played pretty darn well to get ourselves to the final four. Haven't had a good last 48 hours and we've got to fix that."

It may not be fair to judge the Lightning based on their play in Games 1 and 2 of the conference final. They have played very well since the start of the playoffs, but it also doesn't matter. If they lose Game 3, they will be one loss from the end of their season.

Judging their play won't matter then. Finding answers won't matter then. Because the Capitals will have moved on to the Stanley Cup Final and the Lightning will be done, and wondering where and why it all went wrong.

***

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